Time to Treat Russia as a Partner
Published: September 23, 2008 (Issue # 1410)
Before heading to Moscow to participate in the recent Valdai Discussion Club, I had the sense that the United States was on the verge of a new era of confrontation with Moscow that could prove far more dangerous and unstable than the previous Cold War. Alliances are more rickety and as the war last month in Georgia proves, communication is not always clear, with tragic results.
Suffice to say that the Valdai meetings did little to alleviate my concerns. The Russian presenters, with the exception of opposition figure Garry Kasparov, were all singing from the same song sheet: “We don’t want a new era of confrontation, but the choice is yours” — the United States’.
And from the U.S. side, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a powerful speech on Sept. 18, concluding, “The decision is Russia’s and Russia’s alone.” Obviously both Moscow and Washington have choices, but I have little confidence U.S. leaders will make the right ones that will enhance the security of the United States and Europe, let alone Russia. What Washington needs right now is not megaphone diplomacy with Moscow, but real diplomacy.
While the United States may deplore the Kremlin’s decision to invade Georgia — and certainly its decision to rapidly and unilaterally recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia was wrong — the consensus among Russian politicians and most people is that the Kremlin was right and justified. Although government propaganda on television is partially responsible for this national consensus, it also reflects the country’s catharsis after more than 15 years of perceived relentless geopolitical expansion of the West at Moscow’s expense.
President Dmitry Medvedev told us that when he spoke with U.S. President George W. Bush on the phone during the hostilities with Georgia, Bush asked him, “What do you need this for?” Medvedev responded, “George, I had no choice, and if you were in my shoes you would have done exactly the same, only more brutally.” Medvedev went on to say that if Washington chooses to expand ties with Georgia and arm it, Washington does so “at its own risk.”
When Medvedev said at Valdai, “We will not tolerate any more humiliation, and we are not joking,” I believed him. Russian history tells us that we should not underestimate the willingness of Moscow to spill blood to defend the country’s interests as it sees fit. At this moment, the United States needs to focus on that prospect rather than spend so much energy defending past policy.
The Kremlin perceives the Balkan war, NATO expansion, Kosovo independence and missile-defense deployment in Central Europe as having one thing in common — the U.S. drive to flaunt its interests and ultimately contain if not weaken Russia’s geopolitical position. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, Washington’s strategy was to tell Moscow that these pro-U.S. measures were in Russia’s interests. The Bush administration has harped on Russia’s supposed obsession with zero-sum thinking, but the net result was the same — the United States did what it wanted, and it did not take Russian interests seriously. Pages: